Story Project

The Story Project: The Archive

A fun series that Ive rarely referred back to.  Some of this ended up in the Tone section of the book, in a very transformed way. 

The Story Project #5: They Don’t Want Nobody Nobody Sent

This is hard to believe, but ten years ago, comics fans were still convinced that the movies would never take them seriously. Then Sam Raimi hit the first two Spider-Man movies out of the park, and the scales fell from Hollywood’s eyes. They suddenly realized that, in the hands of skillful adapters (which proved to be the tricky part), comics could prove to be a theretofore little-touched treasure trove of high concept story material. Wa-hoo! It was land rush time! Now, of course, even an old school superhero fan like myself is sick to death of all the adaptations. They pumped out the well until it was dry and now they’re already insta-rebeooting franchises like Spider-Man and X-Men (along with Pirates and Bourne and many others). Gee, maybe they can get Tobey Maguire to come back and play the new Spider-Man’s dad! (or slightly-older brother.)

Why won’t they let the party end? Here’s one theory: Development people had always feared that the studio bosses were secretly illiterates who only pretended to read those dry stacks of scripts on their desk. Those fears seemed to be confirmed when they saw how much happier their bosses were about taking home stacks of graphic novels, which came pre-visualized and pre-set to maximum badass-itude. Once the comics well ran dry, they couldn’t force anyone to go back to reading dry prose, especially screenplays which are even duller than books, since they’re only blueprints. 

Things got so bad in Hollywood that many screenwriters, myself included, were advised to convert our screenplays into fake graphic novels that we could then adapt back into screenplays. The most infamous case of this was a “property” called “Cowboys and Aliens”, which pre-sold for big bucks, then put out one issue from a comic book company that existed just to generate material for adaptation. The project has been cited as an example of what’s wrong with the system so many times that I was a little shocked to see a trailer recently and realize (1) the movie finally got made, and (2) the trailer isn’t even half bad.

But comics were just the straw that broke the camel’s back. The biggest problem is simply that failure begets failure. Too many bad spec scripts were sold, which happened to coincide with a time in which a lot or adaptations were unexpectedly successful. These and many other forces combined to create the vague impression that original material was now a hard sell, and once that set in, the great unspoken embarrassment about making up a story from scratch reached out and seized everybody’s heart.

If you try pitching an original movie to a development person today, even if they love it, they know that they’ll be in for a hard slog if they try to pass it on up the ladder. They have to explain that they liked a story that nobody else has ever bought before. It’s so much easier to say “x number of fans can’t be wrong!” (Even in the case of Cowboys and Aliens, where x equaled zero) They’re not in the storytelling business anymore, they’re in the franchising business. They’re not creating commodities, that’s for chumps. They’re trading commodities, that’s less embarrassing.

Our president liked to tell a story on the campaign trail about an idealist showing up to help out with a local Chicago campaign only to have the boss ask him which political machine had sent him over. When he answered “nobody,” they responded “we don’t want nobody nobody sent.” They, too, didn’t want to create value, they just wanted to trade it back and forth. That’s become the American way. But there’s just one problem: Americans crave new stories. If we keep trying to tell original stories, the producers will eventually have to listen to us, even if they don’t want to, as long as we refuse to be embarrassed about what we’re doing.

The Story Project #4: Oh Well, Whatever, Nevermind

Bait and switch time, people: before I get to the current crisis (bumped back to tomorrow), I want to look at another way that writers attempt to save themselves from the embarrassment of telling a story: postmodernism.

European cinema in the ‘60s was the first major flowering of self-aware techniques in movie-making. Both Jean-Luc Godard and Ingmar Bergman were influenced by the playwright Bertoldt Brecht, who explicitly wanted his audience to think instead of feeling, so he used distancing techniques to shut down emotional reactions, but these filmmakers turned that idea on its head: They used distancing techniques that somehow increased emotional involvement. In Berman’s Persona, right at an intense moment, the camera suddenly dollies back to reveal the stage lights and crew, then dollies back into the scene, which continues unabated! Amazingly, we get right back into the story. Basically, Bergman and Godard know that they were so damn good that they could get away with anything. They could remind the viewer that he was watching a made-up story onscreen, which should make the viewer stop caring, but instead it would actually add another dimension of dramatic tension. Since the viewer still cannot stop caring about these compelling characters, his cognitive dissonance merely becomes an additional level of conflict for each scene.

A good postmodern story can seem like the most honest type of moviemaking. “Hey, guys, let’s deal with the fact that you’re sitting in a big dark room and you’re bringing your own expectations to the movie. That’s a pretty big part of the equation here, isn’t it?” I’ve frequently used this blog to praise early American stabs at post-modernism, like Tension and Unfaithfully Yours, which subtly prodded viewers to be aware of their own relationship to the movies.

But postmodernism would later become the law of the land after Quentin Tarantino came along in the ‘90s. He used distancing techniques in clever ways, but I was never sure whether he was simply dazzling us or whether he actually had something to say. Unfortunately, there could be no such doubt about the flood of imitators who followed him, aping his techniques in the crudest possible ways. The problem was that these moviemakers weren’t going for the intellectual effect of Brecht or the cognitive dissonance of the Europeans from the ‘60s. The new guys were winking to the audience for a different reason: because they were too embarrassed to ask the audience to care.

You could see this idea everywhere at the time, from Nirvana albums (“Oh well, whatever, nevermind”) to “Seinfeld”, (“no hugging, no learning”). In each format, the breakthrough originators I’ve named did interesting work, but the copycats used that work as an excuse to jettison emotion entirely. Putting every emotional moment in airquotes, like “Family Guy” does, doesn’t allow the audience to think or feel. In a grave somewhere, Brecht weeps. The problem is that the “too cool to take anything seriously” movement inevitably becomes a self-perpetuating juggernaut. If you’re the only guy at Cannes who wants to stop winking at the camera, you risk looking like a sentimental chump. This contributed to the problem we face today, which I’ll finally get to tomorrow...

The Story Project #3: About What You’d Expect

As long as people have told stories, they have tried to avoid starting a story from scratch. Don’t worry, it’s only an adaptation, or a remake, or a sequel, or at least part of a shared universe or a familiar genre. My story is new but I haven’t cut the material out of whole cloth. I’ve just re-tailored your last year’s coat to fit you better. Let’s look at a few of the tricks people use:

I wrote before about Shakespeare’s preponderance of adaptations and remakes, so let’s move on to sequels: We all know that sequels deserve no respect. Except the “Odyssey”, and “Antigone”, and the “Aeneid”, and “Don Quixote Part 2”, and “Huckleberry Finn”, and “Ulysses”, and Godfather II, and The Empire Strikes Back, and Silence of the Lambs, and… well, okay, I guess there have been a few good sequels. It’s always comforting for a writer to start with characters that people already love, and there’s no reason that you can’t use those characters to create a new artistic statement. Of course, you have to overwhelm the voice of the producers, who often assume that the audience will want the same story too. To succeed, the writer needs to be willing to make something as different as the “Odyssey” was from the “Iliad”.

Shared Universes: One of the hardest things about telling a self-contained story is that it has no consequences. If somebody misses it, so what, it’s not going to affect any other stories. When you accept the benefits of a shared universe, your story gains permanence, but that brings new responsibilities: “Dallas” infamously threw out a whole year’s worth of stories by having a character wake up and discover that the previous season had been a dream, but they had a unexpected problem on their hands: that season had featured a cross-over with its spin-off “Falcon Crest”. Dallas couldn’t say that those stories didn’t really happen unless they were willing to sever their shared continuity with a larger fictional universe, where everything has to “really happen” in a way that simply doesn’t apply to separate stories.

Nowhere does this concept reign more supreme than in superhero comics, but those same superheroes are now bringing the concept over to movie screens. Nobody would call the recent Hulk reboot a sequel to Iron Man, but it’s clearly set in the “same universe.” Of course, this may mean that they’ll soon learn the downside of a shared continuity: If Thor sucks, then Marvel may discover that they’ve devalued other successful franchises along with it.

Genre: This is the simplest way that stories try to put us at ease.You may not have seen this before, but don’t worry, you’ve seen something like it, and we’re going to play by the same rules.” Strangely, movie rental stores have every movie divided by genre-- but no book store divides the “comedies” from the “dramas” and puts them in separate sections. They might separate out the “crime” or “romance” books, but that’s seen as a judgmental ghetto-ization: they slot books into those sections only if they clearly aren’t trying to be “literature”. Every movie goes into a ghetto automatically, so does that mean that no movie is as good as any piece of unclassifiable “literature”? (Maybe it just means that movies cost a lot more to make and so they can’t afford to just trust the right audience to gradually find them on their own—they have to market themselves very specifically.)

Almost every story finds a way to promise, “Don’t worry, this won’t be entirely new to you,” and that’s fine, to an extent. But artistic, cultural and business trends sometimes conspire to bring things to an extreme, like we have today in the movie business, in which original stories have become almost entirely devalued. How did we get here, and how do we get back? Let’s pick up there tomorrow.


The Story Project #2: You Can’t Make This Stuff Up (Or Can You?)

Let’s say that you’re a homemaker in middle America. Your neighbor has come over seeking to be re-assured because she’s worried about an upcoming event, so you want to put her problems in perspective by telling her an amusing story about people in a similar situation. What do you say to her? You’re not allowed to say this: “Your predicament is a difficult one, so I’m going to tell you an untrue story I heard about two totally made-up people who attempt to solve a similar problem in a humorously bull-headed and/or poignantly mistaken and/or clever and laudable way!”

The problem is that people love good stories but they hate lies. This is a paradox, since the best stories are never exactly true. So how do we get around this problem? If you’re that homemaker, you simply say, “Let me tell you something that happened to a friend of a friend of mine.” You’ve added a lie to a lie and made it all okay. These are the stories that have come to be known as “urban legends.” 

Why do we cloak our urban legends in a flimsy veil of truthiness? Its not like anybody believes it anymore. We all know that when we hear “I heard this from someone who heard it from someone else”, then that’s code for “this is just a good story.” So why do we still do it?

The “urban legend” format was invented because it’s embarrassing to tell a story. But here’s the crucial thing: the teller is embarrassed that they’re telling a story, but they insist on doing it anyway, even if they have to pretend that it really happened. They’re willing to bluff their way past their embarrassment. Why? Because urban legends are great stories—so great that you have to re-tell them, even if it’s taboo.

In our culture, a housewife doesn’t have permission to create a fictional story, but she does have permission to repeat a true story.  So when she wants to create or repeat a fictional story, she simply pretends that it’s true.  

Okay, now I’d like to show you some short films… Hey, where’d everybody go?? Come back here! All right, I’ll admit it, the short film is one of the most unsuccessful storytelling forms ever derived by humankind. I hate short films. You hate short films. You find yourself wondering, “How come, if this thing is only fifteen minutes long, it seems like the most interminable stretch of time I’ve ever spent in a movie theater?” 

Most short-filmmakers (who are almost all student filmmakers) totally misunderstand the form. They think, “Well, I don’t have time for a story, so I’ll just focus on a poignant character moment.” Ugh. Sure, character is more important than story, but you can’t have one without the other. No matter how short your story is, there still needs to be a story, or nobody cares. People only care about characters if they’re in a story.

When I arrived at film school, we had a Friday seminar where the chairman of the program showed us award-winning short films, hoping to knock some sense into our heads before we went off and made plotless messes. At around that same time, I picked up the book pictured above, a graphic novel adaptation of the 200 best urban legends collected by the great Jan Harold Brunvand. As I read the book, I noticed something... Many of the best short films were just uncredited adaptations of urban legends! Which makes total sense. Let’s look at two legends from the book. This legend... (please click to enlarge, as always)
...became this Oscar-Winning film (ditto):

And this legend...
...became this Oscar-Winning film (It’s in French, and the subtitles are in Spanish, but you can still follow the story):
Why do urban legends make such great short films? Because they’re simple and universal, yes, but more than that: They set up an expectation and then reverse it. That’s the magic. That’s the heart of a great story. That’s the basic unit of storytelling. Most short films don’t create or reverse any expectations. This was a typical short film at my school: “There was the this one time that my stepfather yelled at me and then later I sat on the abandoned railroad tracks and watched a sunset and cried.” That’s a bummer, but it’s not a story. A story has a reversal. Someone attempts something and their action has an unexpected outcome: That’s a story. And if it’s good enough, it might even become an urban legend. People will feel the need to repeat it even if they fear that they have no right to tell a story.

Tomorrow we’ll get back to the idea of how professional storytellers apologize for the stories they’re telling, and why that’s no good.

The Story Project #1: It’s Embarrassing To Tell A Story

For this new project, let’s pick up where we left off in a piece I wrote a few months ago about… 

--Wait! Stop! That’s exactly the problem I want to talk about! Did you see what I did there? I invited you all here today to tell you something, but when you showed up, I was too embarrassed to just start from scratch. I didn’t say “I’ve got something to say about storytelling, so boo-ya, here it is…” Instead, I felt the urge to couch my new comments as merely the continuation of an ongoing narrative. Why do I feel the urge to do this?

This is a mild example of something that I have come to realize is the big problem that lies behind so many little problems facing writers: It’s embarrassing to start a story from scratch. I’ve recently become more and more aware of all the ways in which storytellers contextualize their story into a previous framework, or apologize for trying to create meaning, or emotionally distance themselves and the audience from the characters, or explain that this story isn’t really their story at all—it’s just something they found lying around.

This is nothing new. The history of storytelling is the history of apologizing for storytelling. Three thousand years ago, if you wanted to make up a story, you had to pretend that it was a foundation myth. A foundation myth is a story with four big caveats attached. The reader must understand a few things:
  1. This really happened
  2. This is part of the origin of why the world is the way it is, not just a metaphor for how the world is. You will see relationships you recognize and can identify with, but this is the first time those relationships were established. You are the way you are because they were the way they were.
  3. These are our ancestors. In the end, they or their direct descendants become the founders of this very city. Our current ruling family is descended from those founders, who were themselves partially descended from the gods. This story explains why we treat our rulers like gods.
  4. Because this is part of our foundation myth, everything that happens in this story has consequences in your daily life. If these events had turned out a different way, your life would be different. These events aren’t just metaphors for our beliefs, these were the actual events that were the source of our beliefs.
Modern-day authors would kill to have that sort of p.r. work supporting their own launches. But today’s authors have their own ways of announcing, “this is not just a story—this is authentic!”. First and foremost, they announce: “I am not an author. This novel is not a product of the time I spent in graduate school learning the art of fiction. No, this novel is a result of the time I spent in prison, or growing up on a ranch, or doing odds jobs around the country, or slumming in Prague. 

Doctors and lawyers boast about where they got their degrees, but writers hide their degrees in shame, at least for the jacket copy or magazine interview. Writers live or die on their “authenticity”, which is the degree to which they are not really “writers”, deep down.

And of course, if professional writers are too embarrassed to admit that they’re making all this up from scratch, just imagine how embarrassed everyday people get when they have to tell a fictional story. Tomorrow, we’ll look at the one distancing technique we’re all most familiar with: “This happened to a friend of a friend of mine.” What can urban legends tell us about where stories come from?